Tuesday, October 3, 2017

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The New Guy in Town: Death on the Nile, 1978

All month long, we're celebrating the Queen of Crime as she and her works appeared on screen, with a grand finale of five Murder on the Orient Expresses the first full week of November. Today, and all this week, we're looking at the main source of her bread and butter, the little Belgian himself, Hercule Poirot. Yesterday, we talked about 1965's The Alphabet Murders; today....:

Death on the Nile (1978)
dir: John Guillermin

The Detective
Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot

The Victim
Lois Chiles as Linnet Ridgeway

The Suspects
Bette Davis as Mrs. Van Schuyler
Mia Farrow as Jacqueline de Bellefort
Jon Finch as Jim Ferguson
Olivia Hussey as Rosalie Otterbourne
George Kennedy as Andrew Pennington
Angela Lansbury as Salome Otterbourne
Simon MacCorkindale as Simon Doyle
Maggie Smith as Miss Bowers
Jack Warden as Dr. Ludwig Bessner

Harry Andrews as Barnstable
I.S. Johar as Manager of the Karnak
David Niven as Colonel Race

1974's Murder on the Orient Express was a hit - admiration from critics, the 11th highest-grossing film of its year, an Oscar, even the approval of Agatha Christie, who never liked film adaptations of her works. It was only natural that the producers would want to produce a follow-up, using the same formula: glamorous period costumes and sets, an exotic locale, an all-star cast. And so they did, four years later, with this: the second EMI Christie caper, the third and last Christie flick to get Oscar attention, and my personal favorite....Death on the Nile.

Filmed on location in Egypt, Death on the Nile has Poirot and his friend Colonel Race investigating the murder of an heiress aboard a luxury cruise down the titular river. And in true Christie fashion, the most obvious suspect has an alibi - and five witnesses to corroborate it. So...whodunnit?

Two-time Oscar winner Peter Ustinov dons the moustache (Orient Express star Albert Finney hated the makeup; Ustinov didn't need it). Ustinov brings his own spin to Poirot, making him far more cynical, more apt to toy with people, more bitchy in general ("We are going through your private papers, is that not obvious?"). In this and subsequent adaptations (he made a total of six films, three of which were made for television), Ustinov brags with a practiced disinterest, strolls with a slow gait, pretends to sleep so he can eavesdrop with impunity - this is no catlike Poirot, but a slow-moving water buffalo.

If he moves like a water buffalo, though, Poirot's mind is as quick as ever. Ustinov is always watching, always listening, both subtly - watch his facial expressions in the background of some scenes - and obviously - at one point, he literally pops up from behind a bar where he eavesdropped on a possible suspect. And if he is more bitchy, he's also more empathetic, more human. In short, Ustinov's Poirot works, and the performance earned him a BAFTA Award nomination for Best Actor. He may not exactly be Christie's Poirot - even her daughter Rosalind Hicks openly objected to the portrayal during a set visit - but Ustinov takes the reigns so confidently that it does not matter. It's the perfect adjustment of the written word for mass appeal - and a star's persona.

He's not the only reason the film works, of course. The film's impressive ensemble includes five Oscar winners, three nominees, and Great Gatsby co-stars Farrow and Chiles. Angela Lansbury was named Best Supporting Actress by the National Board of Review, and was nominated for same alongside Maggie Smith by BAFTA. (Indeed, this was the movie that made me realize Smith was my favorite actor, and I have in my possession an autographed photo of Smith in the film) Director John Guillermin and cinematographer Jack Cardiff consistently work most of the ensemble into sharing frames, captured by a sweeping, sometimes dizzying, camera, the better to emphasize the mystery surrounding these passengers. The score by Nino Rota is one of my all-time favorites. And Anthony Powell's costumes won the Academy Award. It's easy to see why:

It was after this entry that the series started to embrace camp, an emphasis that would make for some truly memorable dialogue but iffy sleuthing (all due respect to my beloved Evil under the Sun, but nobody's watching for the mystery). But we'll always have this, the last breath of classy Christie on the big screen.

Tomorrow, Poirot becomes more animated as he investigates a murder...in the air!

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